Starting in the 1990s, the world’s attention began turning to the specter of ocean garbage patches — heaps of plastic and other debris that accumulate in distinct areas of the ocean, thanks to currents known as gyres. These patches came to symbolize our global addiction to plastic production and consumption.
A lot of the plastic we consume ends up in the ocean due to man-made causes, such as poor waste management practices. Some of it ends up there because of natural disasters. There’s a lot of Japanese plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, due to the 2011 tsunami. Japan is a country that otherwise has above-average waste management policies.
All of this plastic consumption — and the world’s inadequacy at containing it — means an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. It is remarkably difficult to track all of this plastic, but in 2019, a group of researchers affiliated with the Ocean Cleanup published a study about plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They excavated plastic from it and, using what they found, made a model showing what is likely floating in each of the five (at least) ocean garbage patches around the world. They also estimated that what’s floating on the surface of the water accounts for only 1 percent of what we put into the ocean.
That left scientists to undertake a massive plastic modeling project to piece together where a majority of it ends up. It turns out most of it might be closer than we think.
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